The Tingler (1959)

It’s becoming apparent that I’ve been foolishly overlooking William Castle’s value as a visual stylist & an auteur. Thanks to my own heroes’ reverence for Castle in works like the John Waters book Role Models & Joe Dante’s Matinee, I’ve always thought of him as a charming huckster & a good anecdote. Most coverage of William Castle’s art understandably focuses on his gleeful love for & exploitation of theatrical gimmicks: 3D tech, plastic skeletons that “fly” over the audience in key scenes, offering insurance policies to the audience, etc. As endearing as those playful pranks are and as big of an impression they made on the young genre nerds who grew up to become the producer’s biggest champions, it’s kind of a shame that they’ve wholly overshadowed his other merits as a filmmaker. After catching the Joan Crawford psychobiddy Strait-Jacket earlier this year and now the infamously gimmick-dependent The Tingler this Halloween, I’m shocked by how little praise Castle gets as a visual stylist, a boldly visionary genre cinema schlockteur. His imagery is often just as vividly memorable as his marketing gimmicks, which is something that needs to be stressed more often when he’s being praised.

1959’s The Tingler is a perfect illustration of the fight for attention between Castle’s visual work & his offscreen theatrical gimmickry. The movie is most often remembered for its so-called Percepto! gimmick – which simulated spine-tingling sensations referenced onscreen with electrically rigged theater seats that would mildly shock audiences during the bigger scares. The titular “tingler” in the film is explained to be a centipedal creature that lives in each of our spines, growing into massive rock-hard spinal obstructions whenever we are stricken with fear. Castle himself appears onscreen to introduce the film, instructing audiences to scream for relief from this rigid-back, tingly spine sensation whenever we get too scared, or else our respective tinglers will become too strong and crush our spinal columns from within. This insane mythology was conceived by screenwriter Robb White when he found himself studying centipede specimens around the time Aldous Huxley encouraged him to experiment with LSD. Castle’s gift was being able to transform those William S. Burroughs-level dark forces in the screenplay into a playful theatrical prank that’s fun for the whole family. And yet, as much as the Percepto! gimmick has aged into kitschy fun, Castle found other ways to accentuate the surrealism of this acid-soaked centipede premise in imagery that borders on legitimate fine art.

Vincent Price stars as a frustrated mad scientist studying the phenomenon of the tingler, increasingly obsessed with extracting the creature from a patient’s spine at the exact moment they’re effectively crippled with fear. In-between struggling for funding, fighting through skepticism from his peers, and engaging in bitter spats with his flagrantly adulterous wife, Price experiments with inciting terror in potential subjects (read: victims) in an attempt to extract a tingler at its most rigid. He starts with performing autopsies on already-executed prisoners, but diabolically graduates to shooting large amounts of LSD into his own arm in an attempt to scare himself and pulling a gun on his philandering wife to frighten her into frenzy. In each case, the subjects’ involuntary screams interrupt the experiment before completion, “releasing the fear tensions” before the tingler can fully take shape. Eventually, though, the mad scientist finds his his perfect specimen in the spine of a mute woman who cannot scream to dissolve her tingler. Once he inevitably frees the monster from her body, it runs loose, causing havoc onscreen and—through Castle’s Percepto! gimmick—in the very theater where the audience is watching the film. The tingler itself is an adorable centipede puppet operated by clearly visible twine, but Castle manages to squeeze more pure entertainment value out of those limited means than any working filmmaker could with big-budget modern tech.

Of course, you can’t entirely separate what Castle achieves as a visual artist from the novelty appeal of his theatrical pranks, since everything onscreen is toiling in service of that almighty gimmickry. Even just the long-winded, convoluted mythology of a fear-feeding centipede that causes spinal tingling in the moments of intense fear is such an over-the-top justification for the Percepto! stunt, making for one of the most delightfully bizarre B-movie plots in history (especially when you factor in Price’s onscreen experiments with mainlining LSD). Once the tingler is loose, though, the film’s formal experiments with theatrical cinema get even more impressively bizarre. The creature sneaks into an old-fashioned silent era movie house to terrorize the audience there, mimicking the theatrical environment where The Tingler would be screening in real life (an effect enhanced greatly for me by catching the film at the historic Prytania Theatre). It crawls across the projector light, revealing a kaiju-scale silhouette of its centipedal body. Vincent Price “cuts the lights” in the theater, shouting encouragements in the dark for the audience to scream in a collective effort to subdue the tingler, lest we suffer the wrath of the Percepto! chairs. Castle’s gimmickry is not a distraction from his visual artistry, but rather a commercial justification for it – finding a wonderful middle ground between surreal art & cheap amusement.

The tingler itself only represents a portion of the visual novelties Castle screentests here. Disembodied heads scream in a pitch-black surrealistic void as a visual representation of fear. A haunted house display disrupts the film’s black & white palette with splashes of blood-red color as one character attempts to scare a tingler out of another. The movie theater itself becomes a confining menace as the projector light shuts off, trapping the audience alone in a room with the monster they paid to see attack fictional others. William Castle’s playfulness extends beyond his imagination for attention-grabbing gimmickry to push schlocky premises into the realm of vividly graphic, surreal art. I have not been giving him the respect he’s owed for that willingness to experiment with the boundaries of cinema myself, and The Tingler’s a perfect example of these experiments’ dual extremes as silly novelty & high art.

-Brandon Ledet

Countdown (2019)

My eternal amusement with the Killer Internet gimmick in modern horror bows to no one else’s. A few brave souls will stick out their necks for the Skype horror gimmick of Unfriended, the chatroom horror gimmick of Cam, and the Pokémon Go horror gimmick of Nerve, but it takes an even sturdier love of the genre to appreciate the really trashy shit: the Snapchat horrors of Sickhouse & Truth or Dare?, the Facebook timeline horrors of Friend Request, the Candy Crush nightmare of #horror, etc. This is my cinematic junk food – my personal version of the straight-to-Netflix romcom or the Adam Sandler yuck-em-up. I do believe the Killer Internet genre has an inherent value as a cultural time capsule just as much as it does as mindless entrainment, though, especially when it’s at its least discerning. This genre is doing more to preserve what our daily lives online look & feel like than any respectable Prestige Drama would dare; its assumed frivolity as an instantly dated novelty will only prove more academically useful with time, as these films are essentially archiving our cultural experience with modern user interface tech. Enter the killer-smartphone-app thriller Countdown: another silly-ass technophobic horror specimen to add on top of this cursed data pile, and another excuse for me to go to bat for a genre no one else seems to value as much as we all should.

The online ghoul-du-jour in Countdown is a demon who haunts a free smartphone app. This titular app is a countdown clock that tells you exactly how long you have left to live, which could be 60 years or 60 hours, depending on your pre-determined fate. Unremarkable archetype characters download the app in groups at parties & workplace breakrooms, having a laugh at the arbitrary estimation of how much time they have left alive on Earth. Only, the countdown clock proves to be eerily accurate, which isn’t so funny for the unfortunate souls who happen to download it the very night they’re fated to die. Armed with this cosmically privileged information on their impending doom, they naturally attempt to avoid their fate in a myriad of futile schemes: changing their travel pans to avoid train wrecks & car crashes, hacking into the app’s code to add time to their ticking clocks, commissioning a priest to wage battle with the dark forces that haunt their phones, etc. Unfortunately, these half-cooked maneuvers only serve to summon an ancient demon who strikes them down at their exact predetermined time of death anyway. Bummer. Between the hospital setting & college campus environment its main “character” frequents and the inevitability of fated Death that haunts her, there’s nothing especially new to Countdown that you won’t find done better in the Happy Death Day or Final Destination franchises. Its only value is its novelty as an entry in the Evil Internet canon, then, which it contributes to in a few key ways.

Countdown’s central gimmick obviously exaggerates the uncertainty of downloading an untrustworthy app to your phone, not knowing what viruses may accompany it to threaten your data security (and, apparently, your life). It doesn’t help that the app somehow has a 3.6 approval rating despite literally murdering people, so you can’t event trust its user feedback. Worse yet, once downloaded it will not allow you to uninstall it from your device, nor can you mute its notifications. For an unsavvy luddite like myself, there’s a unique menace to not being able to mute the loud, horrific noises that come out of my evil, dumb phone – settings that seemingly revert back to their top-volume horror with every automatic app update. I’ve never seen such a relatable mundane horror from my daily life represented onscreen. Most importantly, Countdown hinges its demonic smartphone possession premise on the eerie unknown realm of User Agreement text – the Terms & Conditions scroll that no one ever reads, to the point where we’re giving strange malevolent forces free rein over our personal data so that we can share cutesy memes about Millennial ennui or whatever. Every single character who downloads the Countdown app is explicitly agreeing to being hunted down by the Countdown demon, which they do automatically without pause. If that’s not the most universally relatable shit that could be exploited in horror, it’s only because you’ve never added an unnecessary app to your smartphone. I commend you for that; you’re are much stronger willed than I am.

There’s a lot about this movie that feels half-cooked: a #metoo subplot that’s not taken seriously enough to justify its discomfort; a PG-13 level body count that’s not brutal enough to overpower the skeptical hurdle most audiences will have with this silly of a premise; the sub-gimmick of a car backup cam jumpscare, which really deserves its own feature lengthy movie (that apparently only I will enjoy). Still, as the only mainstream, over-the-plate horror move tossed into wide release the week of Halloween, I very much appreciate that Countdown found new ways to expand the boundaries of the Killer Internet genre by documenting & exploiting the most mundane annoyances of daily smartphone app use. Cinema is an excellent way for us to record & reflect the full spectrum of the human experience, and we’re very unlikely to ever see an Oscar Bait drama handle topics as pedestrian as unmutable app notifications, unreadable user agreement text, and untrustworthy app store review ratings. That work, documenting the real nitty gritty of daily life in the 2010s, is left to noble trash like Countdown.

-Brandon Ledet

War (2019)

In his (excellent) collection of essays on Hawaiian-born schlockteur Albert Pyun, Radioactive Dreams, Torontonian film critic Justin Decloux speculates on why a cult-ready filmmaker he loves dearly never found their proper audience. Decloux laments, “There’s no major genre community for action films like there is for horror.” That quote has been rattling around in my head recently while watching big-budget Indian action spectacles like War, Saaho, and 2.0 on the big screen with relatively sparse audiences. Of course, the main difference there is that these Bollywood & Tollywood productions do draw sizeable crowds in their home country; they just aren’t drumming up much enthusiasm in America – unless you count “Get a load of this! LOL” viral videos of out-of-context clips being shared on social media platforms for cheap mockery. They should be getting the same attention & admiration Hong Kong martial arts films earned through VHS circulation in the 80s & 90s, as they’re pushing a corner of cinema built on pure excess to more of a delirious extreme than any Fast & Furious, Mission: Impossible, or John Wick-type American franchises could dare to claim. I mean, those doesn’t even have built-in dance breaks between the gunfights.

Speaking of American action cinema and the 1990s, the latest in American-exported action offerings from Bollywood is essentially a beefcake calendar as directed by Michael Bay. War is 70% abs & pecs, 20% stadium-size guitar riffs, 10% homoerotic eye contact, and I guess somewhere in there is a plot about a super-soldier’s mentor who’s “gone rogue.” If Saaho played like a pastiche of 2010s action franchises of the Fast & Furious variety, this ultra-patriotic, muscled-out brodown between two secretly-in-love soldiers is very much modeled after the post-Bruckheimer 90s blockbuster. Its fetishization of missiles, biceps, and allegiance to the flag feels like a return to a bygone era of action spectacle – except now its embellished with You’ve Got Served-style dance competitions and a full-on Busby Berkeley synchronized swimming stage show. Action movies are a cinema of excess, so the mainstream Indian sensibility of mixing all genres & tones into every three-hour flood of wall-to-wall entertainment fits the genre perfectly. Intricately choregraphed martial arts sequences & acrobatic parkour chase scenes mix with handheld cinematography, incrementally preposterous plot twists, and double bass-pedal stadium rock to create a truly overwhelming wallop of action movie excess. And then the usual genre-blending touches of Bollywood Musical fantasy & romance pile on to make the whole thing feel just that much more gargantuan. It’s a wonder to behold, even as something that follows a vintage story template.

Homoeroticism always simmers under the surface in this kind of militaristic beefcake, but it really does feel like War is on the verge of vocalizing that tension outright. Its assassination stakeouts are bathed in bisexual lighting. When the younger soldier’s ability to track down his mentor without losing his cool is called into question, the commanding officer protests “You love him.” The soldier responds, “Not more than I love my country.” When he finally faces off against this rogue superior, he complains, in hurt, “You were like a god to me.” And then there’s all the staring. Whenever our two competing super-soldiers share the screen, their eyes lock with an intense, electric bond no distraction can break. When a female romantic love interest is introduced halfway into the massive runtime, she’s quickly fridged and swept out of the way – but not until after she playfully suggests her soldier beau is distracted as a lover because she has a “Wife? Girlfriend? Boyfriend?” back home. If only she knew. In all honesty, this palpable man-on-man desire isn’t that out of the ordinary for big, muscled-up action movies of this ilk. It only stands out more here because, unlike in the 90s Michael Bay vehicles it echoes, it doesn’t waste any time pretending that femme bodies are the eye candy on display. Its two dueling stars, Hrithik Roshan & Tiger Shroff, are carefully torn out of their clothes in nearly every action sequence to display the perfectly sculpted masc physiques underneath. Equally bare bikini babes are in short order and are quickly disregarded to get to the main course: abs & pecs, and everyone’s invited to dig in.

Whether or not American audiences ever catch onto how deliriously fun these Indian action blockbusters can be doesn’t matter all that much; they’re doing just find without us. If you ever find yourself wishing that a Fast & Furious sequel were just a little more excessive or that Tom Cruise would take a break from jumping out of planes to sing & dance for your entertainment, however, just know that the perfect action blockbusters are already out there – and they’re likely playing at a nearby megaplex (AMC Elmwood, if you’re reading this in New Orleans). You’re just not going to hear much American fanfare about them, because action cinema is for some reason lacking the same communal enthusiasm we afford other genre novelties like horror & sci-fi. They can also be wonderfully gay if you squint at them the right way, which is a plus for any genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Nightbeast (1982)

The opening twenty minutes of Nightbeast may very well be my favorite movie ever made. The other hour is pretty decent too. This $14k regional cheapie wastes no time trying to win its audience over, immediately flooding the screen with gorgeous D.I.Y. nightbeast action in a way that promises a nonstop low-fi special effects showcase. An incredible combo of collage animations & hand-built miniatures stage a spaceship crash in the forested wilderness outside Baltimore. The titular alien beast emerges from his wrecked ship with a raygun in hand and commences vaporizing all cops & townies in his path, revealing Looney Tunes body outlines where their corpses should be. Crosscuts between disembodied handguns firing and nightbeast reaction shots alternate at a strobelight pace. When not vaporizing victims in The Arrival-style animation effects, the nightbeast tears open their torsos with his giant claw, leaving a trail of post-Romero intestinal gore. It’s an incredible opening that’s extremely light on dialogue and extremely heavy on nightbeast. Then the creature loses his raygun and the movie loses its immediacy, slipping into a much more familiar mode of microbudget genre storytelling.

Once Nightbeast settles into constructing a plot, it isn’t sure what to do with itself, so it instead opts out in a way many late-70s, early-80s creature features did: lifting its story wholesale from Jaws. Despite protests from the town sheriff and the local science community, the grandstanding mayor of the small town the where the nightbeast crashed refuses to cancel a fundraising party & evacuate the city, putting his citizenry at unnecessary risk. There’s also a local, unrelated threat from a misogynist biker who strangles women who reject his sexual advances. Oh yeah, and the sheriff makes sensual love with one of his deputies. That’s it, at least until the nightbeast re-emerges for one final outburst of explosions & gore in the third “act.” It’s clear that local microbudget legend Don Dohler and his crew at the aptly titled Amazing Film Productions (including an early “music by” co-credit for a teenage J.J. Abrams) poured almost all of their money & effort into that bewildering first reel, gambling that the opening spectacle would be enough to carry the hour of comedown filler that follows. They weren’t wrong! There’s plenty of typical B-movie charm to the concluding hour of Nightbeast to maintain a goodwill for the cheap-o production on the whole, and then its final outburst of D.I.Y. practical effects spectacle is just enough to freshen your memory that it started off as an all-timer of a creature feature.

I’m a habitual sucker for this kind of communal “Let’s put on a show!” D.I.Y. filmmaking, and that enthusiasm for no-budget genre films may be required at the door to love this frontloaded frivolity for what it is. Despite featuring more sexual sleaze & gross-out gore than either camp (not to mention frequent John Waters player George Stover), this plays as a very wholesome middle ground between 1950s drive-in filler and Matt Farley’s regional horror comedies like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!. The titular nightbeast spills a lot of blood & viscera in this small Maryland town, but in lingering close-ups he’s so charmingly quaint that I can’t help but think of him as a harmless cutie (especially in comparison with the grotesque serial-strangler subplot). Most audiences would be understandably frustrated with the way the film slips into Jaws-riffing tedium after the alien beast loses his spectacular cop-melting raygun, but I personally didn’t mind the cooldown too, too much. If anything, the go-nowhere melodrama in the second act and the final-minutes return to the initial spectacle provided context as to just how cheap this production really was, only making those opening twenty minutes more incredible in retrospect. The ambition of that opening is must-see trash cinema excellence, whether or not you find the more pedestrian hour that follows as charming as I do.

-Brandon Ledet

Bloody Birthday (1981)

The lineage of films borrowing from the killer-children British chiller Village of the Damned has echoed thunderously over the last half-century – from the Euro-grindhouse provocation of Who Can Kill a Child? to the corny folk tale of Children of the Corn to the cosmic Christmas horror subversion of The Children and beyond. If 1986’s Bloody Birthday does anything especially novel with this Evil Children subgenre it’s in the way it retrofits Village of the Damned into the post-Halloween slasher format. If you cut the killer children angle out of the film entirely, this picture would be unmistakable as a cheap-o Halloween knockoff. Its designated bookworm Final Girl archetype walks down suburban streets fending off invitations to party & sin with her promiscuous friends, scenes that look like half-remembered recreations of specific Halloween moments. Her doomed-to-die neighbor friend’s dad is even town sheriff, like in the John Carpenter classic, and the final showdown with the film’s pint-sized killers is a harrowing night of babysitting gone awry. Swapping out the looming presence of Michael Myers with a small cult of toe-headed rascals is a pretty substantial deviation from the Halloween slasher template, however, offering the Village of the Damned formula an interesting new subgenre avenue to explore. It’s an unholy marriage of two horror sensibilities that likely shouldn’t mix, and that explosive combination makes for a wickedly fun time.

Unlike in Village of the Damned, there isn’t much explanation provided as to why the murderous tykes of Bloody Birthday are evil. The three unrelated miscreants are born simultaneously in a small town during an absurdly windy solar eclipse, and their wickedness is waved off with Astrological babblings about cosmic alignments. What’s more important than their origin is the Lawful Evil characterization in their costuming & murder tactics. They dress like shrunken-down Reaganite adults and sidestep the traditional slasher weapon of a glistening kitchen knife for more pedestrian tools of chaos: skateboards, baseball bats, shovels, cars, etc. One of the little tykes even hunts down his elders with a stolen handgun – which would be a disappointing weapon in the hands of a Michael Myers but is genuinely horrifying when operated by a child. It’s unexpected details like that gun that keeps Bloody Birthday exciting even if you’re already over-familiar with the slasher genre at large. It’s not interesting enough for teens to make out in a graveyard in this film; they have to make out in a grave. Not only do the children have an unsettling prurient interest in adult sexuality, peering in on sex & private stripteases; they also fire a bow & arrow through their peephole. After two 2019 releases (Ma & Psycho Granny), this is the third film I’ve seen this year where a killer maniacally scrapbooks about their crimes – a very unsettling hobby for a child. This is a deeply ugly, unwholesome glimpse at Reagan Era suburbia, and the kids are not alright, not at all.

That spiritual ugliness also extends to the film’s look & sound. This is a repugnantly colorless affair, dealing almost exclusively in muddied browns & greys. The sound quality of my blind-buy DVD copy left the dialogue outright indecipherable, prompting us to switch to Severin’s digital restoration currently streaming on Shudder (which was only slightly better, but at least audible). Unlike in most first-wave slashers of its era, the murders in the film actually weigh on the community they terrorize, which mostly manifests in teary-eyed funerals, public meltdowns at kids’ birthday parties, and hospitalized psychiatric retreats to aid recovery. It’s a sense of grief & despair that keeps the mood harshly grotesque & rotten, even when the Evil Children’s wicked deeds stray into over-the-top camp. I personally never tire of the killer-children horror genre and had a lot of fun with this film’s peculiar melding of Village of the Damned tradition with Halloween modernism. It’s an ugly watch in both texture & sentiment, though, one that’s bested as a bygone nasty in its genre only by Who Can Kill a Child?. It works wonderfully well as a genre deviation for both the killer-children thriller and the traditional first-wave slasher, and there are plenty of cartoonishly excessive joys to be found in its intergenerational kills. It’s just also a nasty slice of schlock in its own right, though, so be prepared to squirm between your guffaws.

-Brandon Ledet

Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama (1988)

It’s a shame that the David DeCoteau horror-comedy curio Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama couldn’t live up to the glorious sleaze of its A+ title, but what movie possibly could? From the hot pink comic sans & video game keyboards score of its opening credits to the Porky’s-level slimeballery of its nerds-desperate-to-get-laid rising action, everything about the film’s opening act plays like an attempt to undercut the expectations set by that wonderful title. It almost worked too. Once I adjusted to the limited scope of its horny teen-boy sexuality & no budget DeCoteau shapelessness I started to have fun with the film as a low-stakes Full Moon Entertainment acquisition (the exact VHS genre territory that encapsulates the entirety of the Canuxploitation schlockteur’s catalog). Unfortunately, it was the Full Moon calling card of a pint-sized monster puppet that interrupts the film’s party-time sleaze and sours the mood past the point of enjoyability.

Three virginal nerds escape the boredom of their college dorm by spying on a sorority pledge initiation ritual: a softcore display that leans heavily into girl-on-girl spanking erotica. Once inevitably caught in the act, the boys are paired off with the pledges they spied on for a much less titillating hazing ritual: being dispatched to break into the bowling alley at the nearby shopping mall. As you would expect, this transgression releases a demonic puppet known as an “imp” who lives in an enchanted bowling trophy. The imp then tortures the college-age bimbos of both genders by granting a series of backfiring monkey’s paw wishes. Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama is half sorority-initiation spanking erotica (which is admittedly fun for what it is) and half a goofball creature feature centered around this itsy-bitsy-cutie demon, who actively ruins the mood. It’s not that his design or his kills aren’t passably amusing. It’s that he’s inexplicably voiced with a minstrel show-level racial caricature, which is a deeply ugly impulse the film never recovers from.

The one saving grace of this picture as a cult curio is that it managed to collect an impressive gaggle of 1980s scream queens – The Slumber Party Massacre’s Brinke Stevens, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers’s Michelle Bauer, and all-around Sleazy Slasher goddess Linnea Quigley. You can see that exact trio share the screen in other titles like Nightmare Sisters, however, without having to suffer the “comedy” stylings of this film’s racist puppet. Only Quigley breaks through the tedium of the script with a notable performance, playing a no-fucks-to-give biker who hates the other character’s guts just as much as the audience does. Otherwise, the only exciting character work here is in the light kink teased in the sorority sisters’ prurient enthusiasm for spanking new recruits. Their horned-up declaration that “It’s better to give than it is to receive” frames them as young lesbian dominatrices in training, which the movie can’t help but accentuate with some leather fetish gear when a wish goes awry in the tiny, racist hands of the demon imp.

It’s a shame that this film never fully veers into genuine softcore porno, since that’s where its heart truly lies. A few occasional stunts like a car flipping over, a victim being set on fire, and a human head being substituted as a bowling ball justify its designation as a horror comedy, but it’s foremost a sorority-set spanking video that’s unfortunately hosted by a minstrel show puppet. I suppose there’s some novelty in seeing that kind of genre territory poke around a bowling alley setting and I highly doubt this is the worst specimen in DeCouteau’s expansive catalog of cheapo oddities, but there’s still not much to recommend here beyond an A+ title & poster:

-Brandon Ledet

Spookies (1986)

At their best, horror anthologies revive the undead spirit of EC Comics and short-fiction collections like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: curated omnibuses of various ghouls & creepies that run the full creature-feature spectrum in one concise volume. The 1986 horror cheapie Spookies accomplishes that same effect in a roundabout way, even though it’s not technically an anthology picture. Its own tasting-menu collection of spooky monsters was not arranged as a deliberate series of vignettes, but rather hastily slapped together in post-production to save itself from being scrapped entirely. Originally conceived & shot as a haunted house picture titled Twisted Souls, the film was stripped from the hands of its original creators in a bitter post-production brawl with the studio. After-the-fact co-director & editor Eugenie Joseph was then hired to shoot additional footage set in the same haunted house locale to Frankenstein together a “cohesive” cut of the film without the input of the original crew. Joseph received top-bill over the original directors (Thomas Doran & Brendan Faulkner), as her revision of & addition to the Twisted Souls footage was molded into the delightful, creepy-crawly mess that is Spookies. Fractured across two separate production crews and held together only by its central haunted house locale, Spookies is effectively a creature feature horror anthology: a series of disconnected vignettes that each present a spooky-creature-of-the-minute for our temporary enjoyment.

It’s crystal clear why Joseph had to shoot additional footage to craft a cohesive “story” out of Twisted Souls’s leftovers. The original storyline, as presented in the finished product, involves a cast of drunken hooligans looking to party in a haunted house only to be tormented by the spooky creatures therein. There’s no goal, payoff, or overarching theme to this haunted house experience – just a Scooby-Doo style investigation: systematically opening very door in an old Gothic house to reveal the next consecutive jumpscare. Joseph’s first major addition is the semblance of a plot. She shot a series of ghoulish pontifications from a Vincent Price-type eccentric villain who seemingly dispatches the titular spookies on the housecrashers from a far-off parlor. He never shares the screen with the spookies for obvious reasons, but he at least affords them a purpose & an origin. Other additions were obviously a play to pad out the slim runtime of Twisted Souls’s leftovers, especially a B-story where a young boy unconnected to the housecrashers is chased through a graveyard by the ghoulish eccentric’s werecat servant. I also get the sense that Joseph made some of her more obnoxious additions to Spookies merely to amuse herself in the editing room –namely adding fart noises to a scene where characters are tormented by subterranean monsters that I suppose she interpreted to be septic. Whether the fart noises were something she genuinely believed improved the atmosphere of that scene or she added them solely to troll the financiers who put her in the position of cleaning up someone else’s mess in the editing room is anyone’s guess. Either way, it’s a hilariously juvenile gag that helps remind the audience to not take anything onscreen too seriously, lest we start getting annoyed at Spookies’s total disregard for purpose or continuity.

As interesting as Spookies is for its AIP-reminiscent production history (think The Terror or Blood Bath), the film’s only true merit as entertainment is how many spookies it can manage to deliver in its brisk 80min runtime. It does an admirable job in that respect, flooding the screen with as many “spookies” as it can think to conjure: demons, witches, zombies, werecats, spiderwomen, killer toys, Ouija boards, basement-dwelling fart monsters, and so on. Its disinterest in plot, its overflow of spooky creatures, and its classic haunted house & graveyard sets all make it perfect background fodder for your next cheap-beer Halloween gathering with spookies-loving friends. Horror anthologies are always an excellent choice for those short attention span scenarios, apparently including ones that become anthologies by accident in post. I even got a déjà vu sensation midway through the film that I had seen it before somewhere, so maybe I’ve even been to a party where Spookies was playing in the background – exactly where it belongs.

-Brandon Ledet

Cellular (2004)

There was a time recently when British action star Jason Statham started poking fun at his onscreen persona in projects like The Expendables, Fast & Furious, and Spy and I realized that, despite his rapidly growing fame, I had no real idea who he is. Statham was already a brand worthy of self-satire by the time he registered on my radar at all. I obviously didn’t need to be too familiar with his oeuvre for those jokes to land (any passing knowledge of post-80s Tough Guy action stars of any stripe would do), but I still felt like I was missing out on something. It turns out that the gaps in my Statham knowledge were mostly a string of mid-00s action vehicles like The Transporter, The Bank Job, and Crank, which I’ve been gradually catching up on in recent months while parsing out the persona of this muscly mystery man. Oddly, it wasn’t any of these starring roles for Statham that solidified my understanding of his screen presence. It was instead his minor role as a Tough Guy villain in the 2004 action goof-em-around Cellular that brought home my introspective search for who Jason Statham really is.

It turns out that Jason Statham is a dick, at least onscreen. He even looks like a penis, considering his closely shaved head’s throbbing veins and his penchant for mod-style turtlenecks. Once you grasp that he’s hired to be instantly detestable as screenwriting shorthand, his typecasting become so much clearer in retrospect. In The Transporter, he’s a selfish brute of a nerd who allows his heartless, rules-obsessed professionalism to prevent him from doing the right thing (until a victim of his thuggish clients melts his icy heart). In Spy, he’s a self-aggrandizing blowhard who steamrolls women in conversation and in the workplace. In the Fast & Furious franchise he’s a self-serving, cold-hearted killer who doesn’t know the first thing about Family (until, again, his heart is melted over time). It’s a tradition that stretches back to his bit roles as a growling toughie in Guy Ritchie’s early movies. The brilliant thing about Statham’s casting in Cellular is that he’s only there because of his instant hateability as a total dick. The movie’s plot contrivances are so absurdly over the top that it has no time to invest in fleshing out the character of its central villain, so Statham’s instantly recognizable dickholery is meant to serve as a shortcut. And it mostly works.

Based on a story outline from legendary schlockteur Larry Cohen (who dared to ask, “What if I wrote Phone Booth again, but this time with cellphones?”), Cellular is the exact kind of obnoxious, high-concept nonsense that action cinema junkies are always looking for at the movies. Statham and his army of similarly dickish baddies kidnap a suburban high school biology teacher played by Kim Basinger and terrorize her in an attic for some reason or another. Desperate to call for help, Basinger uses her Science Knowledge to operate the only means of communication left in her newfound prison: a landline phone that Statham smashed to pieces. By tapping the wires of the broken device together to dial random numbers, Basinger miraculously connects to a nearby Nokia brick cellphone helmed by Chris Evans (in total bimbo dude-bro mode here). The original Cohen script was meant as a bitterly cynical social satire about the early days of cellphone obsession, but the version that actually got made is a goofball swashbuckling adventure in which Evans overcomes his carefree Beach Jock life of selfish hedonism to do something heroic for a change. As he gets involved in a series of escalating car chases, gun fights, and kidnapping crises in an effort to save a helpless stranger he has one clear mission: Don’t let the cellphone call drop or she’ll die. That’s quite a premise; classic Cohen.

I wouldn’t necessarily call this a great movie, but it can be a lot of fun as a gimmicky time capsule of quickly outdated tech. The early scenes where Evans is bragging that his brick phone can take pictures is especially amusing, as are later action set pieces where he has to rob an electronics store for a charger or hijacks a stranger’s phone when his all-important call is transferred via a cross-connection mishap. There’s also a very amusing moment where William H. Macy, playing a one-day-from-retirement cop, gets to be heroic in full slow-motion splendor, which is a rare look for him. Even if this is the least interesting execution of a deliriously fun premise possible, it’s still got that Larry Cohen touch of a fully committed gimmick that could just about carry any dead weight you pile on top of it. That might explain why a movie this culturally insignificant somehow inspired international remakes in Bollywood, Tollywood, and Hong Kong. The “Drop the cellphone call and she’ll die!” premise is just that strong. Besides, it has the added lagniappe of seeing Jason Statham’s instantly detestable dickishness being employed for its full villainous potential, which I apparently needed to see to fully understand his deal in general, even if he usually channels that persona into gruff anti-heroes.

-Brandon Ledet

Jawbreaker (1999)

I’m genuinely shocked by how few times I’ve seen the 1999 high school murder comedy Jawbreaker compared to other films in its same wheelhouse. This is far from the pinnacle of the post-Heathers teen girl cruelty satire, but I’m still close enough to dead center in its target demographic that it should have been a teen-years favorite for me. Was it merely the happenstance that Drop Dead Gorgeous was the murderous-teen-girls high school comedy that found its way onto Blockbuster’s used VHS liquidation tables at the right moment that made that one a go-to standard for me instead? Both films are deeply flawed for sure, but I could never tell exactly why one was a beloved favorite that I looped into dust while the other was a film that I occasionally ran across here or there. In retrospect, I think it’s mostly because the appeal of Drop Dead Gorgeous is instantly recognizable; the low-key absurdism of its femmed-up Christopher Guest mockumentary schtick strikes a somewhat familiar tone, no matter how ill-behaved its amorality can be from gag to gag. The specificity of Jawbreaker’s appeal was a little more obscured & difficult to pin down for me, but it finally clicked on my most recent rewatch (only my second or third experience with the film, somehow): it’s Gay.

More specifically, Jawbreaker is perversely funny for having teenage high school girls deliver dialogue obviously written by adult gay men. Judging by writer-director Darren Stein’s work on explicitly gay projects like the queer screwball high school comedy G.B.F. (Gay Best Friend) and the drag queen horror comedy All About Evil, he knew exactly what he was doing here. The dissonance of Jawbreaker is that the Teen Girl actors tasked to deliver his Gay Man dialogue don’t know what they’re communicating at all; it’s as if they’re phonetically speaking a foreign language for the very first time. The result is a bizarre comedy that is paradoxically both over-written and under-performed, which makes it exceedingly difficult to connect with if you aren’t aware of the reason for that disconnect. Once you realize the film is basically the preemptive drag parody of itself, however, everything clicks into place. It becomes clear why all the girls are breathlessly horny for each other, why they use the word “kink” every other sentence, why they emphasize the pet names “Honey” and “Bitch” with such withering sass, and why the film’s only genuine sex scene revolves around a jock hunk fellating a popsicle. It’s Gay™.

One thing both Jawbreaker and Drop Dead Gorgeous get exactly right about the post-Heathers mean-girl high school comedy template is the callous cruelty, something not all its descendants have the stomach to commit to. In this case, Stein specifically zeroed in on the Corn Nuts gag from the iconic Daniel Waters screenplay, a sequence in which a beloved prom queen chokes to death in a prank gone horribly wrong. In Jawbreaker, the most popular girl in school is “kidnapped” by her friends as a prank for her 17th birthday, gagged with the titular candy to muffle her screams of protest. When she chokes to death on the giant ball of sugar in the trunk of their car, they decide to restage her death as a rape & murder case at the hands of a stranger, and their lies eventually overwhelm them in a haphazard cover-up. This mostly manifests in them bribing the school’s most reclusive werido nerd (played by Judy Greer, somewhere under a pile of oversized wigs & sweaters) with a hot-girl makeover. They help her navigate being on top of the clique culture food chain that once buried her (pointing out such adorable social distinctions as The Karen Carpenter Table in the cafeteria) while also coaching her in how to lie to the homicide detective who investigates their friend’s death (Pam Grier, forever a badass). Unbeknownst to anyone involved, they also teach her the ways of Adult Gay Man sass & slang in exchanges like “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” “No, honey, you’re the bitch.” Did I mention that this film is Gay?

Besides its post-Heathers cruelty and its preemptive drag parody humor, Jawbreaker is most enjoyable for its bubblegum pop art aesthetic. It’s a film that’s firmly rooted in a 90s high school comedy patina (after all, it’s one of two 1999 films in which The Donnas play the climactic prom), but its candy-coated surface also has a distinctive retro appeal to it. In that way, I’d almost more readily recommend it to fans of the Sexy Archie update Riverdale than to anyone looking for more of a Drop Dead Gorgeous sensibility. If nothing else, Rose McGowan exudes some real Cheryl Blossom energy in her role as the school’s queen bee, and the cheekily named Reagan High setting shares an R letterman patch with the classic Riverdale uniform. Sometimes this heightened rot-your-teeth pop aesthetic shines beautifully, like in several surreal sequences where the titular jawbreaker makes its way through a giallo-lit candy factory or rotates in the air like a planetary orb. Sometimes it falls embarrassingly flat, as in the obnoxious screen-wipes that frequently interrupt the dialogue or the visible boom mic that dips into the cafeteria tour. Either way, the film shares the clueless-teens-delivering-Adult-Gay-Man-dialogue dissonance that also makes Riverdale weirdly enjoyable, which manifests here in strange touches like the casting of legends like P.J. Soles & Carol Kane or in throwaway references to Barbara Streisand’s “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” for no reason in particular. It’s disorienting, but it helps distinguish Jawbreaker as having a distinct flavor within the post-Heathers teen cruelty pantheon. I still don’t love it as much as Drop Dead Gorgeous, but I at least now clearly recognize its appeal as The Gay One in its genre.

-Brandon Ledet

The Dragon Lives Again (1977)

There is almost no way to describe what happens in the public domain martial arts cheapie The Dragon Lives Again without overselling its low-key charm. Part of the 1970s wave of “Brucesploitation” pictures that capitalized on the untimely death of rising action star Bruce Lee by casting less talented knockoff performers like Bruce Le, Bruce Li, and Bruce Leong in his place, this is the kind of dime-a-dozen schlock that really has to swing for the fences in its basic premise if it’s going to stand out in any way. The filmmakers may have gotten a little overzealous in that effort here, making a deeply, deeply strange film by any standard while merely attempting to stand out among their Brucesplotiation peers. In The Dragon Lives Again, “Bruce Lee” teams up with Popeye the Sailor Man to beat up James Bond, Dracula, The Exorcist, “Clint Eastwood,” and a Party City-costumed skeleton army in Hell. I’m not exaggerating. If anything, I’m holding back other post-modern, copyright-infringing character inclusions (like soft-core porno icon Emmanuelle) in an attempt to simplify the concept. I also hesitate to hook anyone into watching the film based on that synopsis alone, since it promises a surrealist action spectacle that The Dragon Lives Again is not interested in delivering. There are certainly bursts of exciting fight choreography to be found here or there, but for the most part this is a weirdly low-energy hangout film where Bruce Lee chills in Hell with his newfound friends & enemies from pop culture royalty of past & present. The premise does little to prepare you for how lackadaisical the tone & pacing can be.

You may find the idea of a film “dedicated to the millions who love Bruce Lee” that opens with the beloved, deceased actor (played here by Bruce Leong) waking up in Hell a little distasteful. Would it help if I told you that most of the film’s commentary on Lee’s real-life persona revolves around his reputation as a lady-killer and, frankly, a slut? Or that he’s eventually successful in his war against The Emperor of the Underworld’s gang of pop culture misfits and earns his life back on Earth through his combat skills (a chance obviously never afforded to Lee in the “real“ afterlife)? Probably not. It’s as if The Dagon Lives Again’s major contribution to the “Brucesploitation” genre was to really lean into the ”exploitation” half of the portmanteau. This an R-rated picture with lengthy, nudity-filled trips the Emperor’s royal bathhouses. “Bruce” spends a lot of his screen time (when he’s not hanging out with Popeye or teaching gambling addicts how to shed their vice) either seducing women or turning down their offers to seduce him. When he arrives in Hell as a fresh corpse in the opening scene his nunchucks are mistaken by the Emperor’s harem as a bulging erection. The movie makes sure to pack the screen with just enough horned-up sleaze to fill the time between its occasional sequences of “Bruce” beating up famous pop culture characters & their nameless ghoul-goons in bursts of chaotic martial arts spectacle. And just in case you forget that the figure you’re watching onscreen is “Bruce Lee” himself, he goads his opponents with self-referential taunts like “Now enter the dragon!” before punctuating the joke with a punch to drive it home. The film is almost as sleazy as it is silly – no small feat considering its premise.

A lot of what helps The Dagon Lives Again go down smoothly despite its low-energy hangout vibe and weakness for exploitative sleaze is its self-awareness in just how silly it’s being from scene to scene. Of course, the film could not afford to animate Popeye the Sailor Man à la Roger Rabbit nor to hire the real-life Clint Eastwood to appear onscreen next to its knockoff Bruce Lee, so it only puts in the bare minimum effort for the audience to recognize those pop culture figures through their Spirit Halloween Store costuming. It directly acknowledges that visual discrepancy, though, with Bruce Lee’s unconvincing appearance as Bruce Leong being explained in a throwaway line about how when you die your face & body change in the afterlife. More importantly, the movie deploys classic Looney Tunes gags (like opponents being tickled mid-battle or a pistol firing a red flag instead of a bullet), joke needle drops for the Carl Douglas disco hit “Kung Fu Fighting,” and a credits-length spoof of the James Bond series’ iconic intros just to signal that nothing in the film should be taken too seriously (least of all Bruce Lee’s legacy). It’s almost less of a genuine artifact of Brucesploitation than it is a ZAZ-style spoof of the genre – just with a significantly less zany energy level. Besides, even if you did have a chip on your shoulder about the film’s careless handling of Bruce Lee’s legacy, you’ve already won the battle. Because of the film’s shaky-at-best rights issues, it’s currently only available in hideous, crudely cropped public domain transfers that frequently cut entire characters out of the frame while they’re talking. It’s already been banished to the hellish dregs of YouTube & PutoTV where only weirdos who are awake at 3am will stumble into it, perplexed– the only delirious, low-stakes state where this movie stands a chance to fully satisfy its audience anyway.

-Brandon Ledet